The first is The Quality of Mercy. The second, published in 2019, is Lacandon Dreams.
Both feature a cop named Franz Kafka who solves cases and puzzles over the meaning of life in the fictional southwestern Colorado town of Milagro.
Both novels are funny, colorful, and fresh. Because Franz Kafka questions everything, they are full of ideas and issues. Seeking nail-biting tension? Seek elsewhere. Seeking well-written mysteries with an easy flair, Medhat might be writing just what you need.
In the meantime, Katayoun Medhat was kind enough to answer a few questions from her home in England. The Q & A will give you a good idea of what’s going on inside these pages.
It’s clear Medhat has fans—her launch event at the Cortez library last October drew a very nice crowd. But why these novels aren’t on the way to a Netflix studio right now is beyond me. Whoever gets to play detective Franz Kafka will have the role of a lifetime.
Question: The whole idea of naming your protagonist Franz Kafka (such an interesting idea) was it a slam dunk from the get-go? Did you ever think, “I’ll never get away with this?”
Katayoun Medhat: ‘Slam-dunk’ is a basketball metaphor, isn’t it? The idea to name my main character Franz Kafka wasn’t so much ‘slam’ than literally ‘dunk.’ I always knew that once I had a central character around whom to build my stories, I’d start writing. And there I was in Cortez’ gorgeous outdoor pool swimming my daily mile when all of a sudden there was this light-bulb moment: my sleuth was going to be Franz Kafka. It felt completely right and I knew we would be keeping company for a while.
If I have really gotten away with it, I’ll only know when/ if my books are published in German (fingers crossed). I think in the German-speaking world they may be more protective of Kafka and what he is seen to stand for.
Question: Were you a Franz Kafka fan before writing these two mysteries? What drew you to him?
Katayoun Medhat: Do you have time for a long story? Of course I knew about Kafka, had read some of his works and had found them thought-provoking. But it wasn’t until I heard an audio-play of Franz Kafka’s Amerika on the radio that I really got fascinated with him. Kafka never finished Amerika and anyway he wanted all of his work burned after his death. Amerika is a truly weird and mesmerizing work. It is the bizarre story of young Karl Roßmann exiled to America and it is surreal, humorous, disquieting and at times eerily prescient.
My first draft of The Quality of Mercy was in fact called Amerika. The more I looked into Franz Kafka’s life, the more I felt an affinity with him. Like my Hungaro-Austrian family, Franz Kafka was an assimilated Jew. He wrote in German, but had a Czech accent. It is this cultural in-betweenness, the belonging everywhere and nowhere that I relate to.
Then there are things about him that, as a psychotherapist, I find unbearably moving: for example that he wrote a hundred-page letter to his father with whom he had a fraught relationship. I don’t think Kafka’s father ever saw the letter. And if you have looked at photos of Franz Kafka you will have seen that he had the most hypnotic eyes … I would have loved to have met him!
Question: Why the fictional Milagro and not the real Cortez?
Katayoun Medhat: Ha! What makes y’all so sure Milagro is Cortez? I’d say that there is a bit of Cortez in Milagro, insofar as Cortez is my blueprint of an American small-town. It is the only American town – except Shiprock and Farmington – that I have spent an extended amount of time in and where I learned about American life. I do love the area. In fact, I don’t know anywhere I’d rather live than in the Four Corners. But Milagro is enough of a figment of my imagination that I can’t be sued for misrepresentation. Does that answer your question? 😊
Question: The relationship and banter between K and Robbie Begay, in both books, is very engaging. Did you envision this cross-cultural connection at the outset of the story or did it grow organically?
Katayoun Medhat: That’s a great compliment! Thank you! In truth I didn’t know where anything of this would go. I just knew that I had a character and I had a place. And I wanted to write it as true to my perception of reality as I could get. And my version of reality in a way contradicts the American ideal of what reality is supposed to be. My version of reality has a minimum of agency, focus and intentionality and a maximum of confusion, absurdity and serendipity in it. And as for Robbie Begay: He just turned up, wedged his foot in the door and came in to stay. I hadn’t planned any of it. K and Begay just started going their own way and I felt as if I was being pulled along by them. That being said I do believe that in their conversations and banter you’ll find the essence of my experience of American society and in a way it is a projection of an internal dialogue that has ruled my culturally hybrid self throughout my life. And of course it is homage to the Diné I met during my times in the Southwest.
Question: Can you tell us a bit about the time you spent in southwest Colorado? What were you studying? Did the spark for the mysteries happen when you were here? Or later?
Katayoun Medhat: I was captured by the magic/ beauty of the Southwest during an American road trip way back in 1995. And what particularly entranced me was the similarity of the landscape and also of the people to the landscapes and the people of my country of birth, Iran. I was fascinated by these Southwestern communities who had been here for hundreds of years, by their living languages, ceremonies and rituals and I was perturbed by the great historical injustices that had been wrought on Native societies.
Eventually I embarked on a PhD combining my two disciplines of Medical Anthropology and Psychoanalysis by focusing on bi-cultural negotiation in IHS mental health services and the DBHS alcohol and substance abuse rehabilitation program in Shiprock. I seem to have fitted in quite well because quite a few DBHS clients took me for a patient in treatment. I loved my time there. There was a lot of group-based therapy and it made me feel so hopeful, because, regardless of what people had suffered and how much Native cultures have been suppressed and Native communities have been oppressed, in these therapy groups the tribal ethos of kinship and sharing was still very much alive. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but an esteemed Shiprock colleague once told me: “Whenever you find a group of Diné you will hear laughter.” And I found this to be true. There is a lot of teasing and calling people nicknames and telling jokes that do often obscurely, subtly and pertinently address very serious issues. And strangely I can’t get rid of the feeling that I have met Robbie Begay, or if I haven’t yet, I will. Robbie is very real to me.
Question: What’s it like to write novels based in southwest Colorado when you’re living so far away? How did you go about your research, especially all the Native American details?
Katayoun Medhat: As they say: distance makes the heart grow fonder. A lot of what I write about Milagro comes from a place of yearning- and yearning of course springs from that idealized space in your head, which blossoms without being tainted by reality. That blasted head space is all yours to fool around and take liberties in. So I might be sitting at my writing table in the south of England, looking out at a grey, overcast sky and listening to herring gulls screeching- and imagining the conferencing of prairie-dogs under the azure skies and among the majestic mountains of south-western Colorado.
Every time I come back to the Four Corners I see it with fresh eyes and I am so grateful to be here. That said- if anyone wants to sponsor me for a permanent visa I wouldn’t say no…
In terms of research: By the time my first book was written I had been coming to the Four Corners for over ten years. I owe a lot of what I was taught to the inspiring staff and clients at DBHS and IHS; by being invited to participate in certain traditional activities. Then there were the clients at IHS and DBHS who were so welcoming and exemplary in sharing their stories and issues. I could never get over the fact that a majority of clients had been mandated to attend these programs and yet they were constructive and collegial, community-minded and yes- humorous! Then there was the magnificent Mr. Tony Goldtooth who must have taught the whole of Shiprock and who allowed me to audit his Navajo language class at Diné College. I’m still proud that I scored 100% in my first test! And all the other generous and inspiring instructors: Mrs Alice Wagner; Mr Herbert Benally of Diné College Shiprock and Mrs Lorraine Manavi of San Juan College, Farmington. And I owe a shout-out to all my class-mates from those various courses who were so generous in their welcome and the sharing of their insights. There were many, many more people to whom I owe a depth of gratitude. Diné bizaad—the Navajo language—is such a complex and inspiring language, but my advice would be to learn it fast, while you are young, because the older you get the harder it is to grasp the tonal subtleties…and that’s when you start saying rude things without meaning to!
Question: One of the themes writer Franz Kafka returned to was the soul-numbing aspect of bureaucracy. And your character K is routinely trying to get past or around the individuals—members of the palace guard—who protect government institutions or agencies, often in amusing fashion. Was this a purposeful issue you wanted K to encounter, given his name? Something you encountered here as well? Or is it everywhere?
Katayoun Medhat: That is a very pertinent question! As you’ll have gathered by now I’m not much of a planner. It’s more that stuff comes from somewhere (my unconscious I imagine) and finds a place. Thinking about it a lot of inspiration goes way back to when I was working in an adolescent psychiatric unit in London. It probably was one of the most formative experiences of my life and much of what you’ll find in my books: the slightly dysfunctional community, the ‘rage against the machine’, the small mercies of unexpected kindness and the baffling machinations of institutions and bureaucracies all have their origin there. And in this matter I’m completely with K, as you have so kindly quoted in your Four Corners Free Press review: “K’s reality emulated Kafka’s imaginings to an uncomfortable degree. K tended to regard Kafka as a realistic writer.” Though I have to give you that: American bureaucracy ratchets the whole thing up a few notches. It really is a jungle out there!
Question: Your dialogue is excellent–and, in a word, a bit more breezy than some. Do you agree? You’re not afraid to include conversation that might not have a direct bearing on the plot and/or story yet it’s very character-revealing (and interesting). Got any dialogue tips for writers?
Katayoun Medhat: I’d say: just let your characters go where they want to go and say what they want to say. Don’t try to make them say stuff. Just let them play around and give yourself and them time to get to know each other. But then I always loved listening to people and speaking as an Anthropologist and psychotherapist this is what we do: we listen, we observe, we remember. And we rely on our unconscious. I probably have loads of voices in my head that I—unconsciously—draw on.
Question: Who are your inspirations as writers?
Katayoun Medhat: Just to name a tiny number of the many—Samuel Beckett, George Eliot, Franz Kafka, Louise Erdrich, Julio Cortazar. At the moment, I’m really into the Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer, who died tragically young and who would be noted amongst the literary greats had she not been confined to the relative minority of German readers. Then there is inspiration from the ranks of mystery writers: Ruth Rendell is amongst the towering mystery talents; Reginald Hill for his humour and pitch-perfect tone; Kate Atkinson for her special aptitude for mixing wryness and horror; James Lee Burke for his atmospheric descriptions… then of course Tony & Anne Hillerman, Craig Johnson. Lots and lots.
Question: Care to tell us what’s next for Franz?
Katayoun Medhat: There are clouds on the horizon (but it ain’t corona!) and- how should I put it…K finds himself in a dark place between the new and the old order, and his sympathies are not quite where they are supposed to be. Working Title is: ‘Flyover Country ‘ (although this may be revised) and it is due to come out in September 2021. Meanwhile I’m waiting for the Coen Brothers to make an approach on the Milagro Mysteries film rights…
Thank you for these great questions, Mark!
Katayoun Medhat’s website here.